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Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis

Mary Oppen, George Oppen, Swathmore, 1979. Photo Robert S. DuPlessis

Patrick Pritchett

Writing the Disasters:

Late Modernism and the Persistence of the Messianic

in George Oppen and Michael Palmer

Paragraph 1

A hundred years ago I made a book
and in that book I left a spot
and on that spot I placed a seme    (Sun 9)


In Oppen’s centenary year the opening lines from Michael Palmer’s ‘Baudelaire Series’ sound an even more strikingly elegiac note, mixing memory, not with desire, but the haunted precincts of Wordsworth’s messianic ‘spots of time’ and Oppen’s irreducible ‘small nouns/Crying faith’ (NCP 99). Desire is far from absent, though. In both Oppen and Palmer it presses to reclaim a modernism lost to disaster, whether by historical catastrophe, or through the failure of its own totalizing rhetoric. At this crossroads, ‘the lyric valuables,’ as Oppen puts it in his late poem ‘Disaster,’ mark the spot where the metaphysical — or its collapse — ends, as he says, ‘in the small lawns of home’ (NCP 267).


‘Baudelaire Series’ is dense with ghosts; Oppen, possibly, one of them. ‘Yes I just dreamed another dream,’ writes Palmer, ‘and nobody was in it’ (9). This ghostly nobody includes Dickinson (‘I’m nobody’); Rilke (‘to be no one under so many lids’),  along with Celan’s gloss on Rilke (‘Niemandsrose’). But ‘nobody’ especially recalls Pound’s Homeric outis, his Odyssean alias from The Pisan Cantos, signifying not so much escape as the abjection of failure and exile. All the ghosts of modernism appear to be gathered here for a midrashic colloquy. Writing out of and to the catastrophe that is history, both Oppen and Palmer disavow the lyric’s traditional, not to say, anxious, claim on the glories of the autonomous subject. This is one way to account for the extraordinary amount of quotation running through their work. ‘The whole,’ as Adorno warns us, ‘is the false’ (MM, 50). To choose ‘the meaning/of being numerous’ is to elect a chorus of ghosts (NCP 166).


In this brief consideration, I will touch on ghosts, on modernism, on lyric, and on disasters. On the attempts of broken speech to speak broken history. ‘Song?’ asks Oppen, in ‘The Little Pin: Fragment’ — ‘astonishing//song? the world/sometime be//world the wind/be wind o western/wind to speak//of this’ (NCP 255). How often this ghostly western wind, which is the wind of exiles’ longing for return, blows through Oppen’s poems.


Before discussing Oppen and Palmer’s interventions in modernist lyric, I want to say a few words about how I’m positioning disaster. I use disaster in the sense Maurice Blanchot does: an event so extreme in its violence and so far reaching in scale that it destroys metaphysical notions of a limit. ‘I call disaster,’ he writes, ‘that which does not have the ultimate for a limit; it bears the ultimate away in the disaster’ (WD 28). Yet the disaster is not merely a matter of destruction. The disaster of the disaster, so to speak, is that it ‘ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact’ (WD 1). Devastation, which might be thought to lead to wide-scale reformation of the social conditions which engendered it, instead becomes traumatically encoded into those conditions and the categories of thought which enabled the disaster to occur, thereby insuring the eventuality of some new form of disaster.


Disaster — and the state of exception or emergency that arises in response to it, suspending the ordinary rule of law —  becomes the defining feature of the modern state, a point made by Giorgio Agamben in State of Exception, which persuasively outlines the state’s exploitation of political emergency throughout the 20th Century, and, further down market, by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. What aligns Agamben and Klein with Blanchot is that a state of disaster, far from acting as a call to change, is made over into a more or less permanent condition in which the suffering of entire populations from massive systemic shock becomes increasingly the social norm. Disaster is not, as one might hope, the moment of dialectical recognition, but the violent foreclosure of the possibility of such a recognition.


In the standard Frankfurt School critique, the disaster derives from the confused collusion of civilization and barbarism which, as Walter Benjamin notes, are mutually constitutive categories. This is why Adorno can write in 1949, to the outrage of many, that in a total society reification colonizes culture to such an extent that ‘the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism’ poses an excruciating aporia for writing poetry after Auschwitz (CLA 162). Writing’s complicity in the catastrophe of the modern means that poetry itself is deeply vulnerable to a reifying absorption by the very social structures it would contest. The poetry that does not acknowledge its complicity, then (what Oppen refers to as ‘guilt along the morphemes’),  but insists on valorizing the subjective as a privileged mode of experience somehow outside ideology, runs the grave risk of multiplying, rather than resisting, the conditions that make an Auschwitz possible (SP 202). The disaster is not what happens to discourse — it is discourse, poetic and otherwise.


But I also use disaster here as shorthand for the destruction of experience that marks modernity in general. It can occur without any large scale catastrophe, but simply through the daily force of incremental erosion woven into the grain of things: the loss of the singular and the auratic. The destruction of experience, lamented by both Benjamin and Adorno, is the inability to absorb events in a meaningful way. It is the infamous shock effect, the overwhelming of the human sensorium and its cognitive capacity, by the effects of modernity so that the modern is no longer registered by an embodied process of absorption, but by the shock of thousands of small traumas — the meaning of being numerous, indeed. Adorno sums it up this way:


Life has transformed itself into a timeless succession of shocks, between which gape holes, paralyzed intermediary spaces. Nothing however is perhaps more catastrophic for the future than the fact that soon literally no-one will be able to think of this, that every trauma, every unprocessed shock of that which recurs, is a ferment of coming destruction     (MM, 54).


Oppen is acutely responsive to this loss of experience. His work, taken as a whole, strives to reclaim from the shock of modernity a sense of being in the world. This is one reason why the epic project of The Cantos seems so false to him. As he intones in his moving elegy for Reznikoff, whose lines sustained him when he was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge:


heroic this
the poem

to write

in the great
world small       (NCP 306—07).


In ‘The Little Pin,’ Oppen reflects on the estrangement of speech, the stagecraft of history and ‘the long cost//of dishonest music’ (NCP 254—55). Whose ‘dishonest music’ is he thinking of here? Pound, of course, comes to mind at once. Oppen repudiates his reductive program for coherence in ‘The Speech at Soli’ and elsewhere  But beyond Pound, ‘dishonest music’ names the threat that Oppen sees stalking the perimeter of the poem at all times, the possibility of lyric succumbing to a thematizing language of large, empty universals that destroy any chance for speaking in ‘ the small nouns’ that can still give us to direct experience. Dishonest music threatens language at every turn.


This is another of the meanings, I think, ‘of being numerous’: that out of first-wave modernism’s collapse comes a recognition of the profound need for refusing the universal. To swerve away from totalizing claims, as Oppen so resolutely does, insisting instead on the place of ‘the small nouns’ and the work they can do,  prevents his work from suffering what Peter Nicholl’s in his admirable new study of Oppen has called ‘the fate of modernism,’ by which he means, more or less, Pound’s bellicose avant-gardism and the abuses to which he puts myth, placing it in the reifying service of fascism (2–3).


But while ‘fate’ is a fittingly charged description of the crisis of modernism, it also suggests a certain passivity to the forces of historical change. ‘Dishonest music,’ on the other hand, pointedly, if belatedly, particularizes that fate as the scandal of modernism. By pairing Oppen with Palmer I’m not so much concerned with tracing a genealogy, which Palmer himself acknowledges, as to look at the ways in which both poets have made so much of their work a response to the scandalous bad faith of first-wave modernism’s dishonest music, and then to try to position them as exemplary figures in relation to a theory of late modernism.


Late modernism, I submit, is distinct from postmodernism in that it does not accept modernism as a dead end, but approaches it as very much alive: a still actively open and unfinished project staking serious claim to our attention. I locate this claim between Albrecht Wellmer’s assertion that modernity remains for us ‘an unsurpassable [cognitive, aesthetic and moral] horizon’ (vii) and Marjorie Perloff’s bold reassessment of modernism. ‘From the hindsight of the twenty-first century,’ she writes, ‘[the] fabled ‘opening of the field’ [performed by Olson, Duncan, et al] was less revolution than restoration: a carrying on ... of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism’ (2). Late modernism may be viewed as a persistence of modernism, rather than its entropic burn out. For Anthony Mellors, ‘late modernist writing continues to invest in modernism’s esoteric and organicist project of cultural redemption while disavowing its reactionary politics’ (144). One could quibble with notions of the esoteric and organic when it comes to either Oppen or Palmer, but the larger point is that late modernism takes up the task of actively working-through the scandal of modernism by using modernism’s very tools. By rescuing the poetic strategies of quotation, caesura, and parataxis from their status as novelty devices that symptomatically reproduce shock for its own sake, Oppen and Palmer recharge the poem with a cognitive acuity and moral audacity that attempts to speak to the disaster and the disaster’s scandal.


Much of this struggle for an unfinished modernism involves reclaiming the ethical project at the heart of constructivist poetics, as the Objectivists conceived of it, challenging the idol of subjectivist expression with the poem as object. To put it bluntly, late modernism wants to throw out the ideological bathwater, while saving the aesthetic baby. Think of late modernism as a theodicy of modernism: a trial of the poem — as in Zukofsky’s ‘test of poetry’ and Oppen’s frequent remarks throughout his daybooks and letters: ‘the poem,’ he declares, ‘as a test of truth, or at least conviction’ (SP 153).


A theodicy of the poem sets out to justify art in the face of suffering. It takes up the question Adorno continually poses: Is art even possible? It also provides a way to conceptualize the kind of late modernist poem I’m trying to think through here as an urgent response to radical evil, a phrase first deployed by Kant, but taken up with especial emphasis by Adorno. Radical evil, he claims, develops when the human drive to domination severs the connection to the natural world, a process that inevitably leads to ‘the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken.’ ‘In a total society,’ writes Adorno, one which is capable of producing Auschwitz, ‘totality becomes radical evil’ (Hegel 62).


Adorno comes closest to sounding like Oppen when he stakes the hope of rescuing dialectics from the ruins of history through a turn from the pursuit of grand universals to what he calls ‘micrology.’ Peter Dews summarizes micrology as ‘the picking over of the rubble, a reflective immersion in inconspicuous, crushed, neglected things,’ (which sounds like the basic mise en scene of a Beckett play) (208). Both Dews and Adorno are eloquent on this point: ‘It may well be Adorno’s deepest intuition’ comments Dews,  ‘that, if we cannot learn love towards things, then we will never learn to love one another’ (208). If Oppen’s micrology consists of placing faith in the small nouns of the numerous and the things they can still name, then Palmer, rewriting Rilke’s claim for a world-building Orphic lament in ‘Baudelaire Series,’ will radicalize micrological practice to the point of negation:


She says, Into the dark —
almost a question —
She says, Don’t see things —
This bridge — don’t listen

She says, Turn away
Don’t turn and return
Count no more lines into the poem
(Or could you possibly not have known

how song broke apart while all the rest watched — )
Don’t say things
(You can’t say things)       (24)


This flat injunction against speech, with its accompanying refusal of things, as speech offers them, hints at, then denies, the promise of the apophatic to deliver meaning from out of language’s negation. Ghostly Eurydice’s impermissibility sounds a note of finality. The metaphysical disaster that is the shipwreck of history destroys not only a naive historicism’s insistence on continuity, but language’s contract to join us with things. If art is still possible at the end of the history of being, when ‘song [is] broke apart’ (like the body of Orpheus),  then it will be art that speaks spirit in the ruins of spirit, after spirit has turned to cinders.


The way out of this impasse, the poem suggests at its close, is to follow the logic of impasse: ‘some stories unthread what there was’ (26). It is this unthreading, or untelling, this reversal of a destructive chain of narrative construction, that the poem must work to undo. In Blanchot’s parlance, the poem must achieve ‘worklessness,’ an enabling negativity that strives to mark literature as literature, and not as the naked, unmediated discloser of the real itself. Literature for Blanchot is a second-order revelation then; it attests to ‘the revelation of what revelation destroys’ (WF 328). But the negativity of worklessness also provides a kind of radical openness that both resists closure and renews the aura, if only by way of the aura’s dispersal.


This commitment to the radical openness of worklessness — the shoring up not of fragments, but the fragments of fragments — marks Oppen and Palmer (even if the latter seems already firmly claimed by the anthologists of the postmodern) as late modernists: poets still invested in the power of the fragment to speak against despair and for a guarded form of engagement with wholeness. Whereas the cultural logic of postmodernist aesthetics, as Jameson has defined it, operates by way of a ‘random cannibalization of all the styles of the past’ (18), the cultural logic of late modernism can more properly be described as a midrashic praxis, rather than a periodizing term.


Midrash, the long tradition of rabbinical exegesis, offers a compelling method for understanding late modernism’s reading of modernism. Far from random sampling,  late modernist poetry, as I have been sketching it out here, engages the paradigmatic texts of modernism (for Oppen, Pound; for Palmer, Baudelaire and Celan) by presupposing substantive and enduring dialogic linkages. This intertextual model of hermeneutical poesis offers a strong form of resistance to the cultural logic of disaster, which is heavily invested in a strategy of abolishing each moment by its successor, thus dissolving all sense of continuity, all sense of a usable past. As Benjamin dryly observes, ‘the concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe’ (AP 473).


Late modernism signifies a certain way of doing business with modernism’s unfinished project that goes beyond pulling money quotes for some slick bit of bricolage. Its focus is less on making it new — a category of experience already deeply colonized by capital’s incessant fetishism — then on reclaiming what had been new, that is, the promise of redemption contained in the past. It derives from an abiding suspicion, a cagey, reluctant hope, that the category of lateness means there’s still some time left on the shot clock, that writing can address the ongoing crisis from what Adorno calls, with genuine longing, ‘the standpoint of redemption’ (MM 247). Late modernism holds open the offer to work through the implications of history, whereas ‘post-’ implies that that history, together with the chance to redeem it, are effectively over. At the risk of making postmodernism a straw man here,  I want to assert that the redemptive potential of lateness is an argument against cultural entropy. The liberating potential of modernism, as Perloff convincingly demonstrates in 21st Century Modernism, is far from being tapped out.


In his uncollected poem ‘The Song,’ for instance, Oppen condenses into a mere five lines the severity and fragility needed of the poem that would keep open this relation to lateness:


When the words would     with     not     and
Take on substantial Meaning
It is a poem

Which may be sung
May well be sung       (NCP 299).


Here, the critique of modernity’s destruction of experience functions, in its fissuring gaps and bent syntax, as both a symptom of that destruction and its pharmakon — the small dose of poison that cures. Oppen’s repeated insistence on ‘substantial Meaning,’ as rendered by the smallest of words — ‘with, not, and’ — provides an antidote for modernism’s utopian ideas about the continuity of history by employing some of its most striking formal components. Oppen’s parataxis, as well as his insistence on the humblest words, works toward the careful achievement of what Adorno calls the non-identical, a term he uses to denote the absolute otherness of difference that prevents oppositions from collapsing into the amnesia of false reconciliation, or what he calls ‘the fallacy of constitutive subjectivity’ (ND xx). Oppen’s work is geared to undo the ways in which the production of meaning compels us to forget the status of language as language.


‘Possible,’ he dryly remarks in ‘A Language of New York,’ ‘To use/Words provided one treat them/As enemies. Not enemies — Ghosts’ (NCP 116). The distrust of language works to open a post-lyrical space where writing the disaster is parlaying with ghosts. ‘Ghosts’ seems central to formulating a theory of Oppen and Palmer’s late modernism and their engagements with disaster. A ghost is that impossible object — or is it a subject? — that hovers in the liminal space between the dead and the living. To view words as ghosts, as Oppen does here, is to treat them as remnants of a trauma (they have run mad in the subways, he tells us), almost, but not quite, empty of meaning.


I want to place this image of the word as ghost alongside Agamben’s conception of the messianic remnant in his discussion of the liminal status of the survivors of Auschwitz. Agamben locates the messianic remnant in the impossible space between the not-yet departed and the still-to-come. ‘The aporia of messianism,’ he observes, ‘signifies the non-coincidence of the whole and the part ... messianic time is neither historical time nor eternity, but rather the disjunction that divides them, so the remnants of Auschwitz — the witnesses — are neither the dead nor the survivors, neither the drowned nor the saved. They are what remains between them’ (163—64). This irreducible spectral kernel that is the remnant — it can neither be absorbed by the particularlities of the historical, nor subducted into the totalizing structure of the concept of the eternal — acts as a gap or caesura that prevents the folding of the past’s suffering into the ideological matrix of the present. The remnant, or ghost, if one likes, holds within it a power of resistance to incorporation; it’s non-coincidence renders it fluid, incorporeal.


As Benjamin enjoins in Theses VI: ‘In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it ... even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’ (255). The messianic remnant holds open the past as a liminal, unforeclosable space, a special form of haunting that is not the acting out of traumatic aftershock, but which permits the past to cross over into a recognition by the present, saving itself from the disaster of disappearing forever.


In Oppen’s ghostly words, in Palmer’s poems filled with ghosts, we can think this description of an in-betweeness that both divides and joins as pointing toward a conception of the poem as the always aporetic and emergent event, fraught with the contingency and fragility of being, contesting the larger state of emergency that has overtaken it. What struggles to persist, then, in their work is not so much modernism itself as its messianic remnant.


A poetry of messianic remnants does not rescue culture from the disaster anymore that it can stand outside culture. It, too, is part of the disaster; it, too, has suffered catastrophe. This is the infamous aporia of poetry after Auschwitz. What Oppen and Palmer undertake is the urgent task of bringing to light these remnants in order to keep the disaster in mind. This kind of  poem is not a vehicle for lyrical expression, but an instrument for combating cultural amnesia, for resisting the continual barbarism of forgetting and the unremitting pressure to naturalize the state’s ‘state of exception.’ The poems achieve this by interruption, both at the level of the line, where syntax is torqued to disrupt our habits of reading, and at the level of cultural expectations for the poem, where they interrupt received notions of what ‘the aesthetic’ and aesthetic experience should look like.


Rejecting the model of the poem as a set of passive descriptions for ornamenting experience, Palmer and Oppen strive for a poem that will stimulate, in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ provocative phrase, an ‘ontological arousal to thinking itself’ (195). This kind of poetry brings together Pound’s ideas about how a modernist poem should operate as a method for producing ‘Luminous Detail,’ that is, as a close engagement with the event-as-process, with Blanchot’s notion of worklessness, or the radical openness of a work that makes the event of the work (with all its anxieties, doubts, and scissions) central to the experience of it, rather than the polished dollop of aesthetic narcotizing that is actually inimical to and suppressive of experience.


Art after Auschwitz, as Adorno sees it, if it is to restore the radicality of experience, must disrupt ideology’s production of identity. It must be enigmatic, in the dark, endarkening, as Duncan would say. It must resist even beauty, or especially beauty, whose imperiled slide toward commodity threatens art with irrelevance. Palmer’s great poem ‘Untitled (September ‘92)’ opens on this note:


Or maybe this
is the sacred, the vaulted and arched, the
nameless, many-gated
zero where children

where invisible children
where the cries
of invisible children rise       (AP 73)


The tentative beginning — ‘Or maybe’ — coming in media res, after long searching, gives over to a plaintive sense of mourning that is also a powerful echo chamber: the plaited repetition  of so many i’s linked in a sonic chain of causality that acts as both invocation .and commemoration. Midway through this poem, we read:


And at Lateness we say
This will be the last
letter you’ll receive
final word you’ll hear

from me for now
Is it that a fire
once thought long extinguished
continues to burn

deep within the ground
a fire finally acknowledged
as impossible to put out       (AP 74)


Lateness is positioned in the poem not as a time past reclamation, but as a station, or place, where saying, though constrained to the point of only being able to utter farewell, is still allowed. The fire that continues to burn is the very sign of lateness, the mysterious force that produces it and which may be read as both a mark of the disaster and the hope of late modernism to still say the messianic, which is ‘impossible to put out.’ Here Palmer deftly collocates critique with symptom, symptom with cure. The poem closes on a ghostly note:


gate whose burnt pages

are blowing through the street
past houses of blue paper
build over fault lines
as if by intent       (AP 75)


The image of the gate as a burnt book drifting through a city made of paper calls to mind the ashes of the Holocaust, but may also be an allusion to the Jewish tradition of ‘the burnt book,’ a practice that opens up space for the books yet unwritten, a messianic gesture toward the still-to-come.


Oppen’s resistance to beauty is even more determined, taking the form of ever more radical caesuras, both inside the line but also in between lines, bending syntax through heavily loaded enjambments and double-spaced line breaks. These gaps or fissures impels the poem to hover, ghostlike, both substantial and spectral, partaking of two meanings, two lexical events, or else emptying out both into a lacuna of pure potentiality, the power of the poem to signify registered as an open space freighted with emptiness and plenitude.


The caesura enacts the very aporia of the messianic. Neither an utterance in itself, but certainly not the cessation of speaking, its separating function hovers on the borders of the final without committing to finality. On the contrary, as Rudolph Gasché points out in his reading of Benjamin, a caesura offers a radical model for relation predicated on distance, rather than proximity.


A caesura… does not lead to a complete separation of what it divides; as an instance of critical power a caesura only prevents the parts and levels in question from becoming mixed. A caesura keeps them simultaneously together and separate (78).


The caesura separates, but also joins the parts of the poem it cuts into. It is, as Hölderlin calls it, the pure word — a beat, a pulse, a touch: the very touch of the poem’s secret skin. Deploying it as a kind of trial of words ability to say, Oppen permits the poem’s silence to speak with an intensity equal to its words. The caesura is a poetic theodicy in that justifies lyric voice in the face of catastrophe. In the struggle of the late modernist poet against a universal identity that promises a stable selfhood, but actually imposes a crushing sentence of subjection, let Oppen, writing in ‘Route,’ have the final word here:


If having come so far we shall have

Let it be small enough       (NCP 199).


Thanks to Andrew Rippeon for organizing the Oppen centennial panel at the Northeast MLA conference, where a version of this paper was given.

Works Cited

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Rolf Tiedemann. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003.

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